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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Bo

And there was a thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for a three-day period. (10:22)

Rashi cites the Midrash that suggests one of the reasons for the three-day darkness. He posits that it occurred so that the Jews who were too assimilated into the Egyptian culture would die. As a result of the darkness the Egyptians did not see their deaths. Therefore, they could not assert that the plagues affected the Jews as well as the Egyptians. We may question the need for a complete change in nature just to purge Klal Yisrael of an element so alienated that it had no hope of ever returning to the Covenant. If the purpose was that those Jews would perish in a manner that did not engender any publicity, they could have died from various causes over an extended period of time. Why did they have to die specifically during the three days in which Klal Yisrael was preparing for the final act--Yetzias Mitzrayim?

Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, infers an important lesson in human nature from this pasuk. People frequently talk about the great things they hope to do. In the same breath as they expound their glorious plans, they offer all kinds of excuses to justify their inability to bring their plans to fruition. The moment that the "excuses" are addressed and the obstacles that robbed them of success are removed, the truth becomes apparent. They never had any valid plans; their idealistic projects were nothing more than talk. Why is this? What is it about the moment of truth that suddenly causes the person to abandon his lofty plans? Horav Levinstein contends that it is the yetzer hora, the evil inclination, that suddenly rises to the occasion to sway the person from realizing his goals. Why not earlier? Why does he wait until the moment of decision before reacting? Obviously, the yetzer hora is not concerned with conjecture, with a person’s plans. He only responds to reality, when a person is no longer delaying his intention, when he is about to take action. The yetzer hora challenges those who are on the verge of action, --not those who are thinking about moving forward.

As long as the Jews were in Egypt and the Exodus was not imminent, the Jews offered no opposition to leaving. The reshaim, evil ones who had assimilated and had acclimated into Egyptian culture, found lame excuses for staying, but nobody actually protested. When Pharaoh’s resolve weakened, so that he evinced a more positive attitude towards the Jews' release, then these Jews came forward in protest. They did not want to leave. The yetzer hora took hold of them when it was evident that the redemption was near. When these recalcitrant Jews demonstrated their true colors, their actions warranted the ultimate punishment.

They shall eat the flesh on that night, roasted over the fire, and matzos; with herbs they shall eat it. (12:8)

It seems almost paradoxical that one should eat the matzoh, which symbolizes our freedom, together with the marror, bitter herbs, which represent our affliction. That is not the only anomaly of the Seder night. The night of the first Seder occurs on the same day of the week as Tisha B’Av of that same year. On the night that we celebrate the fortune of our redemption from Egypt, we are to remember Tisha B’Av, the day of the year set aside for the commemoration of the churban, the destruction of our Batei Mikdash. Why is it necessary to integrate misery with joy? Are we not taught that everything has its own time and place? Horav Mordechai Gifter, Shlita, suggests two reasons for this. First, at the moment of heightened spiritual joy, when we experience the freedom from bondage and the accompanying kedushah, holiness, it is incumbent upon us to reflect simultaneously upon the bitterness of exile. Thus, we will appreciate our present condition to a greater extent.

We note a second--more profound--aspect to this reflection. We must realize that until the final moment of the geulah, freedom, we were still tottering at the brink of destruction. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, who challenges us every step of the way, works "timelessly" to bring about our destruction. The source of churban is there waiting to grab hold of us, preventing our liberation, hindering our triumph. That same night that resulted in "matzoh," freedom and joy, could just have easily been transformed into "marror," bitterness and destruction.

One must always realize that the derech aliyah, road to spiritual ascendancy, is fraught with the blandishments of the yetzer hora every step of the way. We cannot falter, even for a moment, or the fangs of the yetzer hora will pull us down to ruin and oblivion.

Rather than focusing upon destruction as the catalyst for appreciating freedom and joy, we suggest an alternative approach. In order to accurately assess the magnitude of the loss of an object, one must first appreciate that which he has had in his possession. Only after one is sensitive to the vibrancy and beauty of the Bais Hamikdash service is he able to truly recognize the meaning of its destruction.

Horav Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, Shlita, the Bostoner Rebbe, distinguishes between the two forms of remembrance which Chazal have instituted: zeicher l’churban and zeicher l’Mikdash. The latter recalls the vibrancy and sanctity that permeated the Bais Hamikdash, while the former commemorates the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. The zeicher l’churban represents a passive approach to remembrance. We are to refrain from participating in unbridled joy. Upon decorating our homes, we leave a small corner unfinished as a reminder that as long as the Bais Hamikdash remains destroyed, our lives are no longer complete. When we prepare a meal, we leave one condiment off the table; ashes are placed upon the heads of a chasan and kallah, all zeicher l’churban. In regard to being zeicher l’Mikdash, however, the emphasis is upon the positive. We recall the Bais Hamikdash and the Jewish life that flourished during its tenure.

Consequently, the Jew mourns in an unusual, almost paradoxical, way. The same Jew who rises in middle of the night to cry as he recites Tikkun Chatzos, the prayer commemorating the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, also dances joyfully with the lulav and esrog on Sukkos--all to memorialize the Bais Hamikdash. He cries in remembrance, and he dances and sings in remembrance. The Jewish family who sit on the floor erev Tisha B’Av mournfully eating eggs and ashes will sit down to a table bedecked in finery in order to eat a scrumptious Pesach meal several months later. They eat matzos and marror wrapped together to commemorate the Mikdash. Indeed, the entire Seder is a paradox! The white kittel is the garment that is worn by nobility. It is also used as shrouds for the dead. The marror commemorates the bitterness and affliction, while the matzoh is the symbol of freedom.

We do not minimize our happiness by remembering the destruction, because our tears for the Bais Hamikdash are not relevant to the Seder. We remember the Bais Hamikdash in a positive, constructive mode. Our entire festival cycle recalls the service in the Bais Hamikdash in all of its splendor. We do not recall destruction. We remember the functioning off the Bais Hamikdash. The lesson is simple: The Jew does not constantly focus upon the loss and devastation. To do so would be counterproductive to Judaism, in addition to emotionally draining for the individual. The proper approach towards venerating the past is to mourn with dignity at the appropriate times and to honor in a positive, resolute manner at other times.

The Seder night is a night of education. It is a night in which we raise our awareness regarding joy, freedom, and hope, as well as--in contrast--servitude, persecution, and depression. The Jewish calendar is filled with times which commemorate both. How do we relate to this moment? How do we express ourselves during these times? On the Seder night, we wrap together the matzoh of freedom and the marror of affliction to teach us that they go hand in hand for the Jew. We cannot mourn a destruction unless we are aware of what we have lost. We are obligated to remember our loss in a positive, active manner. This way we will merit to bring it all back -- bimheirah b'yameinu -- one day soon!

But on the previous day you shall nullify the leaven from your homes; for anyone who eats leavened food, that soul shall be cut off from Yisrael. (12:15)

Among all of the mitzvos connected to the festival of Pesach, none is so stringent as the prohibition of chametz. One who does not recount the story of the Exodus, one who does not eat matzoh or marror has "only" neglected performing a mitzvah. One who eats chametz, however, is liable to the Heavenly punishment of kares, premature death. This harsh punishment seems to underline the significance of the mitzvah of matzoh. The prohibition against eating or keeping chametz in one’s possession indicates the crucial importance of the haste in which the Jews left Egypt. They departed in such a hurry that the dough which they were making did not have the opportunity to rise. Imagine, in the space of eighteen minutes, the amount of time it takes for dough to become chametz, all of Klal Yisrael left Egypt! Does this speed minimize the miracle of the exodus from Egypt? Would the significance of Yetzias Mitzrayim have been diminished if the Jews had left Egypt in an hour or even two? Did eighteen minutes really make such a difference?

Horav Avigdor Ha’Levi Nebenzahl, Shlita, suggests that the concept of chametz is spiritual in nature. Bnei Yisrael were totally absorbed in the degenerate Egyptian lifestyle. They were so mired in the contamination of Egypt that had they remained just a bit longer, they would never have been able to leave. Bnei Yisrael had descended to the forty ninth level of spiritual impurity. They were at the brink of ultimate disaster. They were about to become Egyptian citizens--forever!

This is the critical concept that the Torah seeks to impress upon us. The underlying motif behind the prohibition against eating chametz is that the Jews were almost at the brink of spiritual annihilation. We were "raised up" from this nadir of degeneracy, to cheirus pnimis, internal liberation, and spiritual freedom. Never would Bnei Yisrael return to that lowly position of near-spiritual extinction. As they viewed Egypt then, they would no longer see it again. True, they would err and sin, but they would never sink to the point of utter depravity that they displayed in Egypt.

Klal Yisrael’s deficient level of spirituality became apparent during the makas bechoros, when the firstborns of the Egyptians were killed. The Baal Haggadah tells us that it was Hashem Who passed through Egypt on that fateful night. Only Hashem--not an angel--could have discerned between Egyptian and Jew. The realm of distinction between Egyptian and Jew had narrowed so much, as a result of the Jew’s spiritual degeneration that an angel would not have been able to distinguish between the two.

We find that at the Yam Suf, the angels complained to Hashem. "Why do You spare the Jews while the Egyptians are drowning? These are idol worshippers, and those are idol worshippers! What advantage do the Jews have over the Egyptians? They are both sinners."

This idea, claims Horav Nebenzahl, is the Torah’s message for us. The halachah is stringent regarding chametz, prohibiting leaven which distinguishes itself from matzoh in a matter of minutes. Between leaven and non-leaven--between the matzas mitzvah and the prohibited chametz--is a mere minute! The Torah seeks to impact upon us a profound message. Between nitzchiyus, eternity, and spiritual oblivion; between kedushah, holiness, and taharah, purity, there is a distance of only one minute. One ma’shehu, minuscule drop, determines the essence of an individual. Had Klal Yisrael remained in Egypt for one more minute they would have been relegated to spiritual oblivion. A geulah, redemption, could not have occurred. One more minute! That is the difference between chametz and matzoh. Eighteen minutes constitutes the creation of matzas mitzvah. One more minute, and the individual becomes liable for kares!

This is consistent with Chazal’s famous dictum: The letters of chametz and matzoh are the same except for the "ches" of chametz and the "hay" of matzoh. What difference is there between a "ches" and a "hay"? One little line. One more minute! That minute marks the distinction between chametz and matzoh. That minute determines spiritual success or its unfortunate counterpart.

The Midrash, Toras Kohanim, expresses a similar idea. The pasuk in Vayikra 20:25, 26, reads: "You shall therefore separate between the clean beast and the unclean and between the unclean fowl and the clean...And I have set you apart from the nations that you should be Mine." Chazal attribute the juxtaposition of the pesukim to the relationship between the two "separations." If we distinguish between the clean and unclean animal, between the kosher and non-kosher, between the animal whose two simanim, vital organs, foodpipe and windpipe have had the majority of their width ritually slaughtered, Hashem will take us to Him. For the shechitah of an animal to be considered kosher, it is necessary that the majority of both the foodpipe and the windpipe are properly slaughtered. Imagine the amount necessary to make the shechitah kosher is nothing more than a ma’shehu, a tiny drop, insignificant in size, but greatly significant in impact. That tiny hairbreadth distinguished Bnei Yisrael from the Egyptians. That minuscule amount delineates between matzoh and chametz.

On the night of Pesach thousands of years ago, Hashem chose us over the Egyptians, as He has chosen us above all the nations of the world to be His am segulah, treasured nation. This selection separates us from all of the rest. We must continue to strive to earn this distinction.


1. What was different about the locust that plagued Egypt and the one that was during the time of Yoel Ha’Navi?

2. Why did the firstborn of the Egyptian maidservants die during makas bechoros?

3. What happened to the Egyptian firstborn who happened to be in another country?

4. Why did Hashem want to "see" the blood on the doors of the Jewish homes? Obviously, the Almighty knows everything.

5. Did Moshe and Aharon also slaughter the korban Pesach?


1. In Egypt the locust was one species, while in the time of Yoel, they were plagued by five different species of locust.

2. They were happy that Bnei Yisrael were persecuted.

3. They also died.

4. Hashem wanted to see Bnei Yisrael involved in the performance of mitzvos.

5. Yes.


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